The Sarcophagus Murder

Isn’t it insane that I hadn’t read a single Agatha Christie all these years?

I suspect I must have been truly benighted to have not been into the “queen of crime.” It puzzles me all the more now, when I read that she’s the best-selling novelist of all time, having sold, at least, two billion copies worldwide.

But as Daniel Defoe said, “It’s never too late to be wise.” On that note, I began reading “4:50 From Paddington,” which begins with a murder in a carriage.

When Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy, a friend of Miss Marple, peers out the window, she sees a horror unfold in the coach of a slow-moving parallel train. “A man strangled a woman! In a train. I saw it—through there,” she tells an incredulous ticket collector.

A preliminary investigation by the police turns up nothing. There is no one reported missing. No dead body is found. There are no suspects. The case is summarily closed.

That’s when Miss Jane Marple has a go at it. An “elderly, frail old lady,” who lives in the village of St. Mary Mead and enjoys knitting and solving crossword puzzles, she doesn’t look like a detective, at all.

But like her opposite number, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, she’s just as sharp and astute—and single—as he. Only, their method of solving crimes couldn’t be more dissimilar.

If the gentlemen in Baker Street went about the business of unraveling a mystery, mostly by working solo, our silver-haired spinster tapped into the intelligence of other intelligent people such as herself.

Surely, the corpse, if any, couldn’t have vanished into thin air, she reasons. A combination of map-reading and strong intuition leads her to believe that it must have been hurled off an embankment into the compound of Rutherford Hall: a huge, Victorian villa that’s the residence of the wealthy Crackenthorpe family.

A geographical anachronism, it’s an island of country living, ringed by the bustling city life of Brackhampton.

She calls upon Lucy Eyelesbarrow. A Cambridge-educated mathematician, who could’ve had a distinguished academic career, she chose, instead, to enter the far more lucrative field of domestic labor.

She knew that “to gain money, one must exploit shortages.” At a time of serious dearth of expert housekeepers, she—a Roomba, menu-planner, and chef in one—was a godsend to mistresses of households.

It doesn’t take her much to inveigle her way into a post at Rutherford Hall. Her job, when not cooking or doing dishes, is to search its grounds and keep her ears open.

When she discovers the body in an ancient sarcophagus, in an unused barn on the premises, Rutherford Hall is in a state of ferment, with each of the four Crackenthorpe siblings pointing the accusing finger at the other, attributing to them their unique reasons for killing the woman—without even knowing who she is.

They all assume she’s the fiancée or wife of their eldest brother, killed around the Battle of Dunkirk.

Even before her identity is established, two more members are taken out, quietly. There’s curry, laced with arsenic and poisoned tablets, but still, no perpetrator in sight. A noisy and, at times, a fruity, dispute over property is unmasked.

You think you almost know who he is. You keep turning the pages, faster, to confirm your suspicion. And, then, you don’t see him. Your hunch turns out wrong. The authorities are equally bamboozled, cleverly put off the scent.

Miss Marple brings the melee to its end, in a very surprising finale, nabbing the culprit by pretending to have a fish bone stuck in her throat. Published in 1957, it’s a whodunit that’s a riveting read all the way to the finish.


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